Dealing with the highs and lows of change is inevitable. I’ve seen competent executives with PhDs get moved to tears because they feel totally incompetent at what they are doing, entrepreneurs on an emotional roller coaster because they lost a good lead and their cash flow is screwed for the month. I’ve also seen people in transition feeling really low because they were a leader and powerful professional at work, and now the people they once did business with won’t even call them back.
And of course there is just the occasional funk, when you just don’t feel so great (like the one I was in last week). We all go through our ups and downs, but how can we try to stay more “above the line” as we would say in coaching – in more resonant and positive emotions when we’re not feeling so great? Here’s what I’ve learned along the way that I’d like to share with you.
1. Normalize Your Funk
The first thing to remember is that being in a funk is sometimes NORMAL. I had lunch with a dear friend from high school who is now a Harvard-trained practicing neuropsychologist. “What we forget is that it’s normal to have mood swings. We need to start to normalize the fact that we have a range of emotions,” she’d say. We can’t all be in a good, chipper mood all the time. Unfortunately, in today’s society, our moodiness can make us quick to start self-diagnosing – maybe I’m bi-polar, maybe I’m depressed, maybe there is something wrong with me. The truth of the matter is that we need to feel and be with ALL of our emotions. So if you get in a funk from time to time, normalize it, for you are part of the animal kingdom!
One of the principle points that celebrated psychology researcher Brené Brown makes in her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is that when we suppress our vulnerable feelings like fear, shame and disappointment, it makes it impossible for us to feel the positive ones - like joy, gratitude and happiness. (Side note: if you are convinced you feel no emotion, you ARE suppressing your emotions. Get help accessing and feeling them!) Seen the new Pixar move Inside Out yet? Remember at the end when Joy, after trying to keep Sadness from “touching” any of the core memories, finally lets Sadness “touch” some of them? It’s because she realizes that sadness is a necessary emotion to the human experience. If sadness is suppressed, joy cannot be felt. So, embrace your funkiness. What I mean by that is to feel it. Be with it.
2. Celebrate New Wins
Unfortunately, our brains are velcro for negative experiences and teflon for the positive experiences. So when we have a negative experience, we tend to hold onto it.
Oftentimes, clients tell me of their wins for the week at the beginning of our conversations and then leap to all of the problems and what’s going wrong. They don’t dwell on their wins, elate in their wins, spend time with their wins. By not doing so, they compromise the benefits of sitting with a positive experience and what it can do for their brains. This is why they say you have to deliver 5 or 6 pieces of positive feedback for every piece of negative feedback. It’s the teflon/ velcro thing.
There have been days in my business where I have felt really low in terms of my progress. As an entrepreneur, I want everything done yesterday. When I can sit down and actually list all the accomplishments I’ve had at the end of the day, or in a week, I automatically feel lifted up. When I focus on all the things I didn’t get done, I feel inadequate and like I am wasting time, which can lead to me to feel stressed and worried. So, when possible, focus on your wins. If you search for the positive experiences and spend time with them, you train your brain to identify more positive experiences in the future. This is not to say you will not feel down about things, but training your brain to stay in your wins longer will make you more resilient for dealing with setbacks, processing feelings and then getting back on track! (Note: Studies show meditation is one of the ways to also build resilience among people who may be experiencing what we call below the line emotions.)
3. Remember Your Past Wins
This is a sports psychology technique that one of my good buddies explained to me last year. When an athlete is down or disappointed from their performance, one of the ways to coach them is to get them to remember and recount their past wins. This activates the memories and wiring they associate with competence, success and accomplishment, and can greatly shift their mental state.
After closing C.E.O. Women, the non-profit I ran for 11 years, I initially felt pretty low. I had very little confidence in starting a new venture. At the time, I was working on setting up Brown Girl Surf, now a prominent, global women’s surf community. I saw it as sort of my “transition” work. I remember how much anxiety I had around it. In fact, much of my calls were around telling my coach all the reasons I wasn’t capable of doing the work for Brown Girl Surf. I believed that I had to be a good executor. Unfortunately, one of the last colleagues I worked with convinced me I was terrible at well, almost everything I did (she even criticized how I closed the door in our office), and especially so in the skills of sequencing, planning and execution – traits often associated with the left hemisphere of the brain. And the sad thing was that I actually LET myself believe her. I ended up convincing myself that I wasn’t good at execution, that I had done a lousy job starting and growing the organization, that I didn’t hire right.… the list went on and on. I'm sure this wasn't her intention (and this was before I understood how we project ourselves onto others to avoid responsibility) but the more she complained and placed blame on others for the challenges and shortcomings she faced, the more my morale fell. I forgot about all the things I did do right, the execution that went really well, and all the awesome hires that we did make throughout the year.
My coach at the time listening to me struggling and challenged my thinking. She asked me, on a scale of 1-10, how I rated myself in terms of executing at C.E.O. Women all those years. I know nothing was perfect and by all means I knew I had many areas in which to grow, but I gave myself an 8 or 9, taking into consideration context - the little resources we had, and the fact that this thing grew out of my bedroom with just $1,000, with no executive board, no clients, and few connections. At that point, I started to look at the bigger picture - the risks that were taken, the sacrifices that were made, and all the positive wins and successes my team and I had during that time as well as all the learnings along the way. It wasn't perfect but it made me feel like if I did all that at C.E.O. Women, I surely could build the Brown Girl Surf community. It also reminded me to always look at the bigger picture and context; one person putting down your skills should not negate all of your past wins or create mental blocks for future ones.
(By the way, today Brown Girl Surf is co-led by myself and Mira Manickam, another awesome leader. We have almost 3,000 global followers, have been covered in international media, and just got our first $40,000 grant to support programming for adolescent girls in the San Francisco Bay Area that will foster a more diverse and inclusive surf culture locally and around the world! And, our short documentary on India's first female surfer just got picked up by a MAJOR media platform and will be featured next month to its 8 million viewers around the world!)
4. Connect with Others
Ever wonder why solitary confinement is used to punish people? The absence of connection - someone to talk to, someone to be seen by, is like slow death for the brain. There are a few things needed to have a healthy brain, and one of those is connection. Our bodies are directly impacted by our connection to others and to the outside world.
When women are down or go through a hard time, they may be more prone to look to connection to help lift them up. Sometimes the same is true of men, but more often than not, they will retreat to their man caves. This may be a necessary process. However, at some point connection and processing is important and can help lift you out of a funk if you’re in one. A simple phone call, going out to dinner with someone, or inviting them to go out for a coffee can dramatically shift your mood. For someone with anxious tendencies, talking with a secure person can often help move them back to more stability. As a coach, I do a lot of my work in isolation. I have had to plan how to get enough connection throughout my weeks so I am not just doing coaching sessions on the phone all day. I lead a weekly, in-person boot camp for executives in transition, make sure I get in surf time and connect with my friends on the break, do some face-to-face client meetings, and make sure I meet and talk to at least one new person a week. If I’m in a funk, I notice my mood dramatically improves when I reach out and connect with my network and friends.
I once attended a women’s writing class every Monday. The goal was to do our shittiest writing possible, and through that process, the nuggets within our psyches would emerge and we could craft them into powerful writing. We would read each entry out loud to the group. We could write about anything that was on our minds. Some people wrote about their latest online date and getting picked up in a Maserati, while others had something to say about painful memories of being molested in their childhood. What was profound about the experience was that it allowed us to self-reflect as well as be witnessed by a group. Though it was a writing class, it sort of had a therapy-like effect on the group. People heard you. I would leave feeling so good, as if I had processed an experience and could better make sense of how to move forward from it.
Today, I make journaling an almost daily routine, putting aside time to let the feelings pass through. As a CTI (The Coaches Training Institute) coach, we are trained in something called process coaching. The theory behind process coaching is similar to Buddhist philosophy, in that when we have an emotion but do not feel it, the energy of the emotion becomes stuck or blocked inside us. Layers upon layers of blocking can build up. One thing we do as coaches is help our clients become present to their lives, to get them to FEEL their lives. By doing so, we take them down into their emotion to feel it so they can open up space for forward movement. I LOVE process coaching. It’s a highly unique approach to coaching, but hands down one of the most powerful approaches I’ve learned.
Fortunately, everything I preach I practice as well, and these are some of the techniques and learnings I share with my clients, whether they are moving into a new executive position, feeling the setbacks of starting their new business, or just feeling sad. Know that it’s normal. And also, sometimes just a good cry can do a brain good. The sooner you FEEL your emotions, the sooner will pass them through. Train your mind to see your wins and focus on them. And give your brain the connection and self-reflection space it deserves to function optimally in service to your best life!